To be honest, I didn’t expect to get much of value out of my first foray into the world of Gonzo Journalism, a phrase coined by Hunter S. Thompson describing the journalistic technique of living a story to the point where you become part of the story itself. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the unorthodox way Thompson lived and wrote his subject matter. It is crazy, off the rails, irreverent, pointed, and irresponsible. But it works!
With the constant references and first-party accounts of repeated drug use, Thompson’s are not the kind of books you leave lying around for your impressionable school-age children to read. The journalism included in The Great Shark Hunt harken back to a day when any behavior was fair game.
Thompson was a journalist at a time when society was going through a number of monumental changes. The 1960s and ’70s were times of social upheaval wrapped in an unpopular war that ignited a new generation looking to break the molds of its predecessors.
Hunter S. Thompson was a high school dropout due – not surprisingly – to delinquency and a criminal conviction. He joined the U.S. Air Force after his release from a 60 day sentence (31 days served) for accessory to robbery. He never graduated high school as a result, but found his stride as a writer while in the military.
What became abundantly clear quite early in his Air Force hitch was that his interests and intellectual honesty were not well suited for a military establishment. Eventually he splashed on the literary scene with his first Gonzo Journalism work Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, a first hand look at living and riding with one of the country’s more notorious organizations. He became a staple of Rolling Stone magazine after they serialized Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey into the Heart of the American Dream that took a critical look at the failure and demise of the ’60s counter-cultural movement.
Thompson’s works were new to me before I picked up The Great Shark Hunt: Gonzo Papers, Volume 1. I was all of 13 years-old in 1969, when the counter-culture hit its apex at Woodstock, just one year after the debacle of the ’68 Democratic Convention. I was never a big reader of Rolling Stone in those days, only occasionally picking up an issue to read specific articles.
The Great Shark Hunt is a collection of Thompson’s works as they appeared in Rolling Stone, The National Observer, The Chicago Tribune, and Scanlan’s Monthly (an obscure periodical that was published in 1970-71).
What I found most enjoyable and interesting was the trip down memory lane Thompson provides to those of us old enough to remember the events and happenings from that era. From the political upheavals in South America in the late 1960s, through the decadence on display at the early Super Bowls and in the infield at the Kentucky Derby, to the fall of the Nixon White House and the Liberal disappointments with the presidency of Jimmy Carter. In between Thompson also writes about iconic personalities such as Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, Olympic skier Jean-Claude Killy, beatniks and the last days in the life of Ernest Hemingway.
The most enjoyable articles for me were those where I learned something new or was able to view a memorable event long remembered from a different perspective.
- Thompson’s view of Richard Nixon’s fall as the result of the Watergate break-in and cover-up are particularly jarring. To say he hated Nixon would be a gross understatement.
- Under the category of Some Things Never Change, Thompson describes how his hometown – Louisville, Kentucky – went from broken down wasteland to jewel of Federal urban renewal, but with the ominous twist of economic segregation. As the title of the 1963 piece, A Southern City with Northern Problems, might suggest, you could pick Louisville up and place it in just about any city in this day and the same conditions and results could still be found.
- Thompson being no fan of Richard Milhouse Nixon, you might be surprised that he wasn’t all that enamored of Jimmy Carter either, at least not until he heard Carter deliver a Law Day speech at the University of Georgia in May 1974. Thompson was so impressed by the social insight displayed in Carter’s speech that he carried a recording of the speech throughout the 1976 Presidential campaign, playing it for anyone who would sit still long enough to listen.
- In a series of articles over a period of time Thompson provided an interesting explanation of how the beatniks of the early ’60s gave way to the radicals and hippies, who then retreated into their world of Let-it-be after the debacle of the ’68 Democratic Convention.
The only story I missed that might entice me to look for another Thompson tome was his first-person account of that conflagration in Chicago. Those were horribly interesting times when two far different cultures clashed over politics and an unpopular war, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy cast a pall of violence.
In a way not at all surprising, Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide on February 20, 2005 with a gunshot to his head, after a prolonged bout with painful medical issues. His suicide note to his wife, Anita, was entitled Football Season is Over:
No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax. This won’t hurt.
I guess at some point, I’ll have to pick up Dr. Thompson again.